On the Nature of Progress

I’ve been thinking a lot about change recently. About how we all move through time — how time passes seemingly without end. How progress is inevitable, inescapable, incontrovertible. And yet the word progress is not quite right for what’s happening and that’s been bugging me. In one sense, sure, it’s pretty indisputable that we are moving forward, for there is no alternative. But progress implies moving upward as well, and, well, that’s where things get sticky.

Is it really progress that we are increasingly filling every single spare moment of our lives with micro-activities: tweets, shares, snaps, glances, notifications, likes, favs, follows, retweets, reblogs, comments, replies, in-app purchases, taps, force-touches, deep presses, pinches, swipes, clicks, scrolls, zooms, plays, skips-forward, skips-backward, pauses, unpauses, replays, replays, CMD+Ts, CMD+Ns, copies, cuts, pastes, saves, opens, closes, backups, restores, CMD+Qs?

I’m not saying it isn’t progress, just that we should — especially those of us in charge of designing these micro-activities (and the products that are powered by them) — think deeply about whether it actually is. And beyond that, can we agree on whether or not this so-called progress is good?

Nine years ago, Anil Dash implored us to make something meaningful, quoting a talk Linda Stone gave at Gel Conference:
Does this product, service, feature, or message enhance and improve our quality of life? Does it help us protect, filter, create a meaningful connection?
This was before the Facebook News Feed (if you can imagine back that far), before Twitter and Instagram, before the iPhone (and before “apps”), before Snapchat, before push notifications — way before Apple Watch. Dash was talking about blogging tools, specifically, but also generally about the “Web 2.0 malaise” many of us felt back then. Countless times a day, it seemed, TechCrunch or Mashable or somebody else introduced a “social network for ______” that was little more than a clone of yesterday’s “innovative new service” for a specific vertical. The so-called “progress” back then had become such a parody of itself that Michael Sippey wrote a Web 2.0 Checklist. Remember any of this stuff?
  • Public beta alpha
  • Give us your email address, we’ll let you know when it’s ready
  • Tags
  • Feeds for everything
  • Built with Rails
  • Sprinkled with Ajax
  • Yellow fade
  • Blue gradients
  • Embarrassing, but accurate.
For all the strides we’ve made in tools and services and speed and connectivity, can we really say we’re solving more meaningful problems or empowering people to have more meaningful interactions than we were back then? Is it possible we’re all too caught up in keeping up to do anything else?

When household appliances appeared en masse back in the 50s, promising (women) to make things easier, faster, better, cheaper, we instead ended up turning these devices into must-haves, filling our free time with additional work, responsibilities, and “needs.” More work led to more disposable income which led to more purchases which led to more free time which led to more work. And the cycle continues today on a curve that maps roughly with Moore’s Law.

The number of verbs we’ve added to our lexicon under the guise of “features” is growing at a staggering rate (see paragraph 2 above for just a few) and verbs are expensive. It sounds obvious, but I think it’s important: verbs are things we do. Which means each new verb replaces time spent doing other verbs.

I’m as fascinated by the potential of wearables and the Internet of Things as the next guy, but as technology gets faster, more invisible and more personal, the duration of every interaction shrinks. We measure desktop usage in hours, smartphone usage in minutes, watch usage in seconds. And so we invent more verbs to fill these increasingly short periods of time. “To watch” has been replaced by “to look” which has been replaced by “to glance.”

What do we miss out on when our focus narrows? What verbs disappear entirely when our attention operates in seconds and milliseconds? What interactions become irrelevant, what meaning becomes meaningless?

Here’s a verb: to love. How long does that take?

The New York Times says 36 questions and 4 minutes of sustained eye contact. Can that be made more efficient? Is it within reason that we’ll reach a point in human evolution in which love becomes no longer possible, no longer essential? Could our actions be accelerating the timeline for the extinction of love as surely as they are the warming of our climate?

I know this all could be reading as overwhelmingly curmudgeonly, but I’m not at all saying designers and developers and inventors should just close up shop, go home, and accept the world as it is.

I’m saying that maybe we need more of this:
And less of this:

I’m saying that it is our responsibility to design the future we want to have. That very little is truly inevitable unless we allow it to be. That the sun still shines, people still smile, and better is still possible. That we have a duty to ourselves and our fellow humans to ask a single question about every new feature, every new interaction, every new product:
Is this meaningful?
And if not, how can I make it so?